November 12, 2007

Challenge, Frustration

Ah, yes, the question of all questions in the MMO world right now – how do you make a game that is challenging, but not so frustrating that you end up throwing your mouse (or worse) across the room in frustration.

Game designers are always trying to find the limit of how long players will stay with something that’s difficult before expecting to see progress. Go to any MMO forum and you’re bound to see a thread or 12 that debate this very issue. But while players will discuss it to no end, you rarely see any specific comment about it by those in the industry. Sure, they tweak and adjust the games in order to address the balance between challenge and frustration, but rarely expound on it.

So it was curious to say the least when Brenlo and co-host lifted the cork right out of the bottle during their discussion of the Vanguard Producer’s Letter. Here’s the transcript (thanks to this thread at Silky Venom), but I highly recommend listening to it. Zip over to the 32 minute mark for the Vanguard piece. (I bolded certain parts)

She: They’re talking about making the death penalty not so severe, which I’ve heard is big a controversial topic…
He: It is a big contro – oh, sorry – ah well, you know.. that game is an interesting game, ahh… interesting, interesting game *old man’s voice* we can do many psychological studies on the impact of that game *normal voice* but that’s a hardcore crowd, it’s a crowd that kinda grew into the MMO back in the old days of Everquest. You know, a lot of those people are the faithfuls from the early days of Everquest when the game WAS very difficult. What some people call a challenge, others call frustration and that’s kinda why these games have evolved to remove some of those frustrations for the mass audience and Vanguard is gonna logically have to follow that route as well, they’re going to have to remove those frustrations.
She: Or they’re not gonna see any new blood.
He: Right. And I know as much you guys love your game and you want it to be your game – in order for the game to grow, you have to make it appeal to as many people as possible. And I’m not saying that it’s gonna become a WoW and I’m not saying it’s going to maintain its Vanguardyness or whatever you wanna call it-
She: The Vanguardyness
He: – but they have to do things to try to allow other people to play and one of those is – that’s a very steep death penalty in that game and making that a little friendlier can get some other people interested, because it is a huge expansive world with a lot of content, lots of challenges, a beautiful art style and we WANT people to enjoy that.
She: We do, we do.
He: We do, we do.
She: Very much so. Well, they have a whole list of stuff here that they’re looking to add in, evaluating for change and improvement as the wording is here -
He: But, check out Thom’s podcast, give them your feedback -
She: His Producer’s Letter…
He: Thom’s Producer’s Letter, yeah. Thom’s doing his own podcast, it’s the Thom Therazzas “I eat donuts podcast”.
She: *laughs*
He: What was that, Cat?
She: *muffled* I hope they didn’t get any of that. *laughs*
He: Cat says she hopes she’s not recording that one.

This is just a snippet, and it follows Brenlo’s impersonation of the old, crochety, EQ gamer, which is a whole other blog entry.

There are several things I found to be surprisingly interesting. First of all, from the comments, they seem to feel that the death penalty in Vanguard is “steep.” For argument’s sake, let’s look at what the death penalty actually is.

If you die in Vanguard, you leave a tombstone at the point of death. Any gear you have on that’s not soulbound is left on the stone, and you lose some experience. If you can get back to your tombstone, you can loot it for your gear plus much of your lost experience. But you can also summon it at any altar, which gives you back your gear but you don’t get the exp. In all my 50 levels of playing, doing plenty of soloing and dungeon crawling, I have not had a time where I worried about dying, and believe me, I’ve taken plenty of chances. Steep would be rotting corpses, lost gear, (stolen gear!), and multi-night corpse recoveries. I endured all of those in Everquest. Vanguard is not Everquest.

It’s arguable whether the death penalty is actually steep in Vanguard. I’d argue that it’s not, but that’s not the real meat of the podcast discussion. What is most curious is that they seem to think that the death penalty is the reason why subscriber numbers are so low. At least, that’s what I inferred from the ultimatim that old, grouchy, gamers of Vanguard need to get used to a milder death penalty or we won’t see any new blood.

Look, the death penalty isn’t why people left Vanguard. People left because they couldn’t run the game, even on an 8800 with Vista. They left because they’d spend days and days trying to kill thousands of ants, click things, and do handstands to spawn the ant queen, only to find out that it wasn’t working/wasn’t in the game. They left because after having two consecutive double experience weekends, they had bumped into the edge of content, and discovered that there was a lot that was completely unfinished. They left because they were falling through the world, they were stuck in combat, they saw rampant hacks and duping, and they got tired of seeing something as simple as a door to the Beranid Hills quest hub be broken, months later. If you want to talk about things that are frustratingly difficult in Vanguard, the death penalty would be pretty far down on the list.

People *are* looking for a challenge – 200k were looking for it the day Vanguard went live, and that’s even after all the scuttle about it being troubled. I’ve said it again and again, but there are lots of gems of content in this game that are challenging – and lots of fun. What drove people away is that the frustration of having to try to wade through all the issues with the game to see those gems. To say that people left because the death penalty was too stiff is oversimplifying and shows a lack of understanding about the game, which I’m realizing I probably have a little too much of right now.

/steps slowly away from the keyboard.

Posted by jayernh under Archive,Vanguard General | Comments (14)


  1. Pretty much everything you say is true. If they think that it’s the death penalty and EXP curve that is keeping people away, they are seriously mistaken.
    I came from WoW to VG because I didn’t like everything to be handed to me. I wanted challenges and goals. Not to be presented with something each time I login, I wanted stuff to work towards.
    I do not want the game to be made less harsh.

    Comment by mmuugg — November 12, 2007 @ 4:41 pm

  2. argh thank you jaye! Thats exactly how I feel as well. I think they are out of touch with what we want. I mean SOMETHING has us sticking around after a metric ton a crap happening to the game the developers. People are looking for a challenge and right now vanguard is the only place to get it. New people are asking for buddy keys daily. They want to join in on the “out of touch MMO”

    Comment by Lumio — November 12, 2007 @ 5:31 pm

  3. I played in beta but never bought the game. My main reason wasn’t the severity of the death penalty (but that certainly didn’t help). It was alot of things some of which you mention like the bugs and the poor client performance. The ultimate thing that stopped me from buying was how unfriendly it was, to me if only, to casual and solo play. By the end of beta it felt like a massive grind to level or be forced to group.

    In the end Vanguard while it had elements that I really loved (some of the classes, diplomacy, the huge world) was just too frustrating. In some ways it was similar to easiler EQ2 but they came around and finally made atleast the outdoor areas easier for solo/casual. (Still waiting for the day a company makes all content scalable).

    One last comment in regards to death penalties. I don’t understand why companies simply implement multiple optional death penalties. A player wants a severe penalty to heighten their sense of danger let them choose it. A player wants an easier penalty let them choose it as well. Obviously there would need to be some baseline such as respawning at a known location like an altar but everything else could be up to the player to choose. Give a player the right to brag that they made it to max level with a “hardcore” death penalty.

    I could care less about how other people experience their game I just want to enjoy it my way.

    Comment by Curious George — November 12, 2007 @ 5:53 pm

  4. Totally agree. I’ve never been what I consider “hardcore” but I like the xp gain and death penalty in Vanguard just fine.

    Like Jaye said, the dp isn’t the barrier to entry. First and foremost *at this juncture in time* word of mouth is the primary barrier to entry. VG has been thoroughly trashed; not many new players (or at least the type who might read up on games first) will bother applying. System requirements and overall performance are next. I’m enjoying VG (though playing extremely casually — promise I’ll be back soon Jaye!) but I build my new rig to Tabula Rasa’s beta specs which were higher than VG, so I’m getting decent performance from VG but Joe Average Gamer doesn’t have my rig, he has a WoW rig.

    They really should concentrate of fixing what they have and building on it. Let US, the players, revive the game through word of mouth just like we nearly killed it through word of mouth.

    It’s already been proven that a system overall ala NGE is a Bad Thing. Ironic that it’s SOE yet again who’s jumping on the “let’s change things to Easy Mode” bandwagon they created.

    Comment by Talyn — November 12, 2007 @ 5:55 pm

  5. egads, must be Monday, that was full of typos… *sigh*

    Comment by Talyn — November 12, 2007 @ 5:56 pm

  6. Here are my thoughts: To me, Brenlo and Amy were addressing the death penalty but speaking more broadly about the game being “too difficult” and not being as fun as the competition. When they talked about the Producer’s letter, they stressed the need for stability and optimizations so I think they almost take those things as a given as far as what needs to be done to bring VG back into the mix.

    Truth be told, the devs are in a bad spot really because they are moving away from the game concepts that attracted most of the 200k who bought the game. I would optimize, fix bugs, maybe even make the world smaller and work on solo / group / raid content gaps while maintaing the game as “hard core.” VG will never be another WOW or even another EQ2 as far as popularity goes. By the time it gets polished, if ever, there will be even more competition in the MMO space. Seems like SOE’s best bet would be to target the hard core and build a game that is fun, has content, plays well on decent machines and offers a “niche” MMO experience.

    As the game moves toward “ez mode,” I just don’t see what will differentiate it from EQ2 or even WOW. As a player who has max level characters in those two games, what’s the point of playing Vanguard if it is so similar but inferior in comparison? I can’t see the game ever being as polished as EQ2 and WOW with only 16 or so devs left on the team. A watered down Vanguard just doesn’t seem to differentiate itself in the market. What’s the point? Unfortunately, I just see the game continuing on a downward spiral eventually ending up in the category of Asheron’s Call / UO & The Matrix Online – just surviving…


    Comment by Lazaretto — November 12, 2007 @ 6:27 pm

  7. I wrote an extensive reply, somehow it got lost :(

    I will summarise…I completely agree and think you summarised exceptionally well Jaye. I’m pretty sure both you and Troy (VoV) know I am a huge supporter of VG, but I am fuming right now, and my mouse is hovering over the ‘unsubscribe’ button.

    Not happy at all Jan. And to think, they would divert resources from essential items to making the game work, to revamping a class that no one thought needed revamping. Aaaargh.

    I have a PC with an 8800GTS, 4GB RAM, Dual core and I crash minimum once an hour, often more. Some of those CTD’s provide we with a death in game. Groups don’t want to know me because they get sick of it. That is on top of the broken quests, the stuffed spawns (Ant Queen is a great example) etc.

    I am 36 years old. I never played EQ2. My first MMO was Earth and Beyond. I, like so many others, want death to hurt. I don’t want to lose 5 levels, but I want it to be avoided. I am insulted by those comments from Brenlo and others.

    Sorry I started ranting but I deleted it…not happy.

    Comment by Vogai — November 12, 2007 @ 9:35 pm

  8. (Can you tell I’m mad yet…)

    There is one question I would love to put to the powers that be at SOE…

    Why did you buy Vanguard? If you are going to dumb it down to attract ‘new blood’ as Brenlo and co state, then why did you bother? It is going to be another EQ2.

    I do not understand their thinking from the very beginning. Brad, for all his faults, had a very clear vision of what he wanted. Take that vision away, put in SOE’s…you have EQ2.

    Comment by Vogai — November 12, 2007 @ 9:43 pm

  9. “It is going to be another EQ2″

    That’s the thing – it will move in that direction but it will never be as polished, have as many players, deliver the depth of content as it’s more popular sibling. I don’t get making it more EQ2ish when SOE already has a strong product in that space. VG needs to be a “niche” product and that is catering to the more hardcore crowd. I’m afraid it’s lost it’s identity.

    Comment by Lazaretto — November 13, 2007 @ 10:15 am

  10. Great post Jaye and you are bang on with what you said. But I don’t think anyone should feel to bad.

    Brenlo and Amy are more concerned with there coffee then what is truly happening at SOE. Which in turn makes them extremely boring podcasters.

    I gave up on the SOE podcast LONG ago. I would download it for the news and that was it.

    I think they should start looking at more MMO podcasts like the Virgin Collective to really see how to podcast properly.

    Vanguard is broken. Sorry I had to let it out as I recently subscribed and unsubscribed in less then 2 weeks. I just couldn’t get past that I have this so called top of the line system and I get beat up every which way I turn by lag and hitching no matter how high I run the graphics.

    I to have a system like you Talyn that can run TR full out, but also can’t run Vanguard at all.

    I saw the new screens of the Khal remodel and they are indeed impressive. I fail to see how these improved graphics can enhance my experience if I am still stuck wondering where to go next for my questing line when I am only 21 on my necro. I now saw what you meant Jaye on VoV when you said the twenties were a tough and may I add confusing spot. I stood by CIS for days wondering what to do next.

    Word of mouth is great but how can I possibly look at my friends and honestly lead them towards Vanguard when it feels so broken to me.

    Sorry also for ranting and going all over the place. There stupid attempt at humor didn’t pay off.

    (Just had to add this. Final Fantasy 11 has the second highest MMO population outside of Korea, and it is extremely challenging and the death penalty is fiercely mean. Guess that just proves the great SOE podcasting gods wrong.)

    Comment by Hailin — November 14, 2007 @ 2:39 am

  11. [...] Here’s what I didn’t agree with…that VG’s main frustration is the death penalty which is apparently something they are taking a serious look at. Jaye, our resident VG expert summarizes the death penalty view vary well: If you die in Vanguard, you leave a tombstone at the point of death. Any gear you have on that’s not soulbound is left on the stone, and you lose some experience. If you can get back to your tombstone, you can loot it for your gear plus much of your lost experience. But you can also summon it at any altar, which gives you back your gear but you don’t get the exp. In all my 50 levels of playing, doing plenty of soloing and dungeon crawling, I have not had a time where I worried about dying, and believe me, I’ve taken plenty of chances. Steep would be rotting corpses, lost gear, (stolen gear!), and multi-night corpse recoveries. I endured all of those in Everquest. Vanguard is not Everquest. [...]

    Pingback by The Common Sense Gamer » Has it got legs? — November 14, 2007 @ 8:58 pm

  12. There have been a lot of great comments so far, and I agree with all of them.

    One thing I would like to say to you Jaye is, Don’t feel afraid to post things like this! I loved your pseudo-rant and you should always feel free to voice your thoughts no matter if they seem to drag on.

    Comment by Cow Nose the 50 Pound Cat — November 19, 2007 @ 1:59 pm

  13. [...] What sticks in my craw about this interview is the whole “get over it” tone of the interview. I fully admit that I might be a bit cantankerous about the in game item rewards for the Living Legacy promo, but that’s not something I want to be reminded of by the SoE PR people! Aren’t they the people that are supposed to make me think happy thoughts about the game? This is sorta like the SoE response to the Unhallowed Triad/Holy Trinity secret server move from test to live. Or the “deal with the changes or you won’t get new players” conversation to the Vanguard community in a recent SoE Podcast. I know that marketing people don’t really mean it when they call me a “valued customer,” but heck, just patronize me anyway, please! Pay me the lip service! [...]

    Pingback by Journeys with Jaye » Totally Not Supposed to Happen Part 2 — June 24, 2008 @ 9:02 am

  14. Let me start with saying I’ve followed this game since beta but never played it.I have several high lvl chars on Wow, FFxi(current) and Eve.Every now and then i check on VG and always there is a stir about something they are doing to the game or its broke in some way. The devs cause way too much drama for me to give it a serious go.
    But some thoughts on the game i would offer anywho.Seems like the Devs have 2 choices. 1)Take the player base you have thats been faithful, and continue to build the game around the reasons they have stuck with this game thru the mud.(Fix bugs,finish polishing it up.) -or- 2) Radically alter the game to seems more like another game a.k.a forget your player base and try to appeal to the masses playing other games.
    I like loyalty personally. I like a game that feels different than every other game. Its why i lvl a champion to 40 in Lotho in 3 weeks and said forget this, i might as well play wow if all this is ,is a clone(sry i know some of u love lotro)its ok… but my advice is SOE should build from the player base up. Keep what you got happy 1st then look at what u can do to get more 2nd. Clearly you guys want the bugs fixed 1st before they start trying to tinker with game mechanics that are working fine and i dont blame you.

    Comment by KyteFfxi — February 3, 2010 @ 11:55 pm

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